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The story of the official Financial Services Club’s Bear!

The Financial Services Club finished the year with a party, of course.

This party was at one of the ancient livery companies of London, the Wax Chandler’s Hall (what’s a wax chandler?), and dedicated to the newly adopted bear of the Financial Services Club, Wojtek.

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We adopted the bear because our logo is a bull and a bear, representing the bull charging forward and bear rearing backward movements of the stock markets.

Therefore, it made sense to have an official bear mascot, and Wojtek is it.

What or who is Wojtek?

Wojtek, pronounced Voytek in English, was a soldier.  His name means 'he who enjoys war' or 'smiling warrior' –

During the Second World War, Wojtek fought alongside the allied troops, loading missiles onto lorries and wrestling with the soldiers.  He also drank and smoked cigarettes with the soldiers.

How come?

Well, the story begins in 1942 when Wojtek was born in Persia.

Irena Bokiewicz, a young Polish refugee walking across the Elbruz mountains as she escaped from the Soviet Union, bought the bear from a boy in a market in Hamadan, Iran, after the bear’s mother had been killed.

When the bear cub became too big for her, Irena donated him to the Polish Army based in Iran, where he was raised by the troops.

Wojtek

As the bear was less than a year old, he initially was fed with condensed milk from an emptied vodka bottle and, subsequently, fed with fruit, marmalade, honey and syrup.  The soldiers also regularly rewarded Wojtek for good behaviour with beer, which became his favourite drink. He was taught to salute when greeted, as well as other tasks around the military camp.

Soon, Wojtek became an attraction for soldiers and civilians alike, and soon became an unofficial mascot for all the units stationed nearby. Over time, Wojtek moved around the Middle East with the company, moving through Iraq and then Syria, Palestine and Egypt.

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The company then faced the issue of how to get him on to a British transport ship when the unit sailed from Egypt to fight with the British 8th Army in the Italian campaign. 

Allied commanders had issued an order that troops advancing on Rome were not to be accompanied by animals, and so the bear was promptly enlisted in the 22nd Transport Division (Artillery Supply) of the Polish 2nd Army Corps as a corporal.

As one of the officially enlisted "soldiers" of the company, he lived with the other men in their tents or in a special wooden crate, which was transported by truck.

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During his most famous escapade, the animal voluntarily carried shells for Allied guns during the brutal Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, helping his friends by transporting ammunition and never dropping a single crate.

In recognition of the bear's popularity, the HQ approved an effigy of a bear holding an artillery shell as the official emblem of the 22nd Company (by then renamed to 22nd Transport Company).

Wojtek emblem

Following the end of World War II in 1945, the bear could not be repatriated to Poland and so was transported to Berwickshire in Scotland, along with parts of the II Corps. Stationed in the village of Hutton, near Duns, Wojtek soon became popular among local civilians and the press. The Polish-Scottish Association made Wojtek one of its honorary members.

After demobilization in November, 1947, Wojtek was then given to the Edinburgh Zoo where he spent the rest of his days, often visited by journalists and former Polish soldiers.

Wojtek died in December 1963, at the age of 22. At the time of his death he weighed nearly 500 pounds (230 kg) and had a length of over 6 feet (1.8 meters).

The media attention contributed to Wojtek's popularity. He was a frequent guest of BBC's Blue Peter program.

Among memorial plaques commemorating the bear-soldier are a stone tablet in the Edinburgh Zoo, plaques in the Imperial War Museum and the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, as well as a sculpture by artist David Harding in the Sikorski Museum in London and a carved wooden sculpture in Weelsby Woods, Grimsby.

The reason that the Financial Services Club has adopted Wojtek as our official bear is that there are proposals to erect a memorial to him in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh.

On September 16th 2013, the City of Edinburgh Council approved of the project for a bronze statue of Wojtek to stand in the gardens, the first such approval given to a new construction in the gardens for over a century.

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The statue shows Wojtek and his ‘keeper’, soldier Peter Prendys, placing a hand on the shoulder of the gentle giant, a stance he always adopted when the pair walked around camp together.  The status is also accompanied by a four metre long relief, representing his journey from Egypt to Scotland alongside the Polish Army.

Sculptor of the statue, Alan Herriot, said:

'Wojtek may be most famous for assisting his fellow soldiers in carrying the shells, but really the value was in the effect his presence had on morale.   I was very keen to depict that close friendship they enjoyed with him, as well as the entertainment and laughter he brought to the troops.

The bear provided a 'welcome distraction' from the horrors of the desert war, wrestling with the troops and entertaining them by getting into countless scrapes, from getting stuck up a palm tree to cornering an Arab spy.

If you feel like supporting the charitable project, then please donate here and find out more from the Wojtek Memorial Trust.

Much of this article is adapted from the Wikipedia entry about Wojtek and this article in the Daily Mail.  The photographs are taken from the website Wojtekthebear.com.

You can also watch the full Wojtek story here:

And buy the book if you want to really get the full story.

The Financial Services Club bear with Aileen Orr, author of Wojtek the Bear, and Krystyna Szumelukowa, Wojtek Memorial Trustee.

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About Chris M Skinner

Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, the Finanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here…

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